10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World: A Writer’s Trick Gone Wrong
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World would be a great choice if you want to read about richly woven historical tales about the minorities in Istanbul.
The story of Tequila Leila begins with an end. The first page of Elif Shafak’s novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, finds Leila in a garbage dumpster on the outskirts of Istanbul.
Leila Afife Kamile, born in 1947 under a compulsory stay-at-home order dictated by an authoritative father, lives in a small village where newborns' umbilical cords are thrown on school rooftops within the hope that the child will become a teacher.
Though Leila’s family life is solitary and filled with trauma, her home and the mechanics of that home – the cooking, the celebrations, the neighborhood women’s waxing days – are full of color, scents, flavors, and sounds; the local culture is stuffed with folklore and superstition.
The book won several awards and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Jury member Liz Calder praised the novel for “bringing Istanbul’s underworld to life.”
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, is Shafak’s eleventh novel and the third—after The Forty Rules of Love and Three Daughters of Eve—to feature numbers in its title. Like her previous works of fiction, it skillfully knits the lives of her main characters into the historical backdrop of Turkey and the wide changes it undergoes.
Told in three parts; Mind, Body, and Soul – the novel takes its base from the concept, that there have been recorded cases of continued brain activity after death for up to 10 minutes 38 seconds.
A dive into the body and soul
For 10 minutes and 38 seconds, Leila is left to reminisce about her 43 years of life, her escape to Istanbul, and the close friends she made there, as her body lies in a dumpster, on a cold night of November 1990.
This first part of the book, “The Mind”, dives into Leila’s brain, drawing the path of how her life was shaped and how her beliefs had changed.
Each minute is distinguished by a sense of memory: The weight of the salt with which the midwife at Leila’s birth covered her infant body; the smell of bubbling lemon, sugar, and water on the stove of Leila’s childhood home; the taste of cardamom coffee, strong and dark that Leila drank during her breaks at the brothel where she worked.
Shafak is a master in infusing her own time-bending illusions with sensory imagery, and her writing style shines when it involves describing the sensuous perfumes of Istanbul, thus bringing the most mundane scenes to life.
Shafak was able to rebel against time, discarding it like an irrelevant measuring cup, where ten minutes and 38 seconds can extend to a lifetime and beyond, in an immeasurable letter to Istanbul and its forgotten souls, whose only crime was to dream of another life.
Shafak opens tiny interludes for Leila's group of friends who all eloped to Istanbul, seeking a spot into self-realization, only to stumble into the city's heavy stones. As Shafak writes,
Istanbul was not a city of opportunities, but of scars. The descent, when it started, spiraled rapidly, like water sucked through a plug.
Elif Shafak leaves the mystery of Leila's murder to unfold until the very last chapters. While getting there, the reader dives into the lives of Leila's friends, as the five best friends resolve to give her the farewell that neither her kin nor the state will provide.
Transgender Nostalgia Nalan, childhood partner in crime Sabotage Sinan, Somalian migrant Jameelah, dwarf Zaynab and singer Hollywood Humeyra, all represent various issues in Istanbul's society.
The many social issues tackled in the second part of the book, are too numerous for one book. The novel lacks the proper framework to deliver on its many promises. In this second chapter alone, Shafak packs so many voices and stories that the narrative buckles under the weight.
It seemed as though Shafak was writing from a checklist, and this applied to every character in the book, ranging from Leila, a disgraced woman who works at a brothel, a lover who is revolutionary enough to die, a singer, a dwarf, and an illegal immigrant.
Shafak gave us a tiny glimpse of each character and attached us to them, only to distract us from the main character’s story.
If you are a fan of Elif Shafak or The Forty Rules of Love, you will love the book. For others, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World would be a great choice if you want to read about richly woven historical tales about the minorities in Istanbul.
A trouble-maker writer?
Elif Shafak acknowledged the Armenian genocide in her 2006 novel The Bastard of Istanbul which was longlisted for Britain’s Orange Prize, which led to Shafak being tried for “insulting Turkishness."
For this book, Shafak has been investigated by Turkish authorities for her obscene depictions of sexual abuse.